The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/In the Russian Village
In the Russian Village.
By Th. Kriukov.
It seems that the "holy calm of Russia's impoverished villages" has nowadays become deeper, as if it had grown in its bounds. So it seems, at least, far in the interior of the country; as if all the thunder and the noise, all the shrieks and groans, have become concentrated in one place, while beyond the quivering boundary line of the mighty upheaval, nothing remains but dumbness and emptiness.
Such an impression comes inevitably to one who witnesses the life of the Russian village, both on week-days and on holidays. Everything is quiet; no busy bustle and motion, no music, no singing, no profanity. Life has not died out; it seems to have shrunken, grown quieter, more timid and severe, become religiously self-concentrated, as it often becomes during Lent, or in times of great national misfortune ...
This is my second month spent in the capacity of an observer of the quiet and slow-moving life of the Russian village.
... A part of my working day is usually devoted to giving every variety of advice, and writing all kinds of petitions. By the irony of fate, while wholly unversed in either legal or business practices, I am considered an extremely learned and important man, and am supposed to have connections with all sorts of institutions, almost from the palace to the prison. And, willingly or unwillingly, I am compelled to bear the burden of unearned fame, to hear sighs, complaints, and groans, to give advice and write petitions. It is not easy to close one's door to people who have no other place to go to in their need.
The variegated threads of everyday troubles are now bound together by the heavy chain of war difficulties. Every day brings from the war territory some hint, some tiny bit of news, which speaks of the difficult life in the vast camp, hidden from the eyes of those who follow the great drama through the newspapers.
Yesterday, an old Cossack came to me from the neighboring settlement. While stating his request he suddenly burst into tears and could not finish it. He simply handed me a folded sheet of paper.
"Here," sobbed he, "read of the troubles that fall on my old head. I never thought that anything like this would happen."
I opened the folded sheet. It was a copy of the decision of the Odessa district court-martial. An officer of the 54th Don Cossack regiment, Medviedev, age 25, had committed a crime while in a state of intoxication. Medviedev came to a farm-house and demanded wine from the host. When he was refused, he fired two shots into a window. Luckily, the shots did no damage. Perhaps taking this circumstance into consideration, the court-martial punished Medviedev by a sentence of only twelve years of penal servitude.
"Won't you help me? I'll pray to God for you all my life!" sobbed the old man, while I was saying,
"But what can I do? How can I help you?"
"You ought to know," answered the old man in firm conviction. He stood there before me, so pitiful, yet so strong and handsome. "I have four sons there, but I never expected such shame. We've never been in court, or fined for anything. And now ... If he was killed fighting, or was wounded, it wouldn't be so hard. But this way ... And lost the Cossack's rank, too!"
"But it wasn't for nothing. Suppose he had killed somebody?"
"The Lord knows what got hold of him. He never drank at home. He was so quiet. And now, see what he's done. The old woman and I can't sleep any more. When we look at his children, the heart begins to burn. How will they live with this blot on them? Won't you tell me what to do?"
Everything is still, with the stillness that comes when heavy clouds overcast the sky, when dark shadows hang shroud-like over the fields, when the white sands of the river-bank grow grey, when the purple hills and the blue grove on the horizon lose their coloring and disappear in the greyish mist, and when all living sounds, so familiar to the ear, suddenly die away, as if swallowed by some monster,—when everything disappears within itself, crowding around its own thoughts and vague questionings about life.
Life in the far-away quiet nooks and corners flows along its long-trodden paths, and yet the war has cast a heavy shadow on it. The village street is empty on week-days. And yet there is an hour of the day when, from the window of my room, I can see crowds gathering about the well in front of the post office. At noon the mail arrives from the station ... The whole population of the village is there, old men, women, priests, a doctor, the teachers, boys, girls, messengers,—persons of all ages, classes, and occupations. Some of them come there every day; others come occasionally.
"What do you want to come here for, eh?" asks the letter- carrier Shpaka, in a mock-severe tone, addressing an elderly woman who carries her crochet-work in her hands.
"And why did you come?" asks the woman, imitating his tone.
"I've got business here."
"Well, so've I. I've got four out there."
"That's not so bad. If they write by turns you'll get something every week."
"Yes, but I've not heard from the fifty-second for three months. And the thirty-seventh is also quiet for the last four weeks. Maybe something's happend to them."
Old women and children now know much more than ever they did before: numbers of regiments, names of cities, mountains, rivers, words they never heard hitherto. And when you hear their slow conversation and their timid discussion of what is going on "there", under the tempest of shot and fire, you feel that these simple, ignorant, wearied people, while not knowing what we learn from newspapers, know something which is infinitely more certain and true, something we cannot find in any book or article on the war. And yet, oppressing uncertainty hangs even heavier over them than it does over us, the readers of newspapers ...
At last the door of the post office is opened. The crowd enters the room assigned to them, merely to see a package of mail handed over to the letter-carrier. Then they all file out after him and hurry to the village hall for the distribution. Sometimes the mail brings no bad news. But often the letter-carrier's bag contains the grim message of misfortune. Then the streets of the village are filled with women's sobs, old men's cries that resemble the dull bark of dogs, and the shrill weeping of children.
And this noisy manifestation of grief is invariably followed by the grave, business-like silence of every-day life.
On holidays, the crowds gather around the church-fence, near the well, and in other public places. Sometimes groups of different sizes are formed, and sometimes dense crowds are gathered about some wounded soldier returned from the field. In such groups the freshest and the most varied information is received and discussed. There is a considerable element of the fantastic in this news, but, generally speaking, it gives a fairly true idea of what is going on at the different points of the great drama whose aggregate forms the War.
... Sometimes I join a rather large circle of listeners. It is impossible to get close to the speaker, as the crowd is too dense around him. At times it is difficult to hear distinctly.
Once I joined such a circle. The story flowed along, often interrupted, again becoming lively and animated, throwing all around the horrible fragments of a horrible picture. The crowd became larger and larger. The circle about the speaker was drawing tighter and tighter. Once I saw him. A thin, little man, with an unkempt beard, dressed in a military overcoat and a cap of dull grey. The listeners crowded against each other, trying to get nearer to the center. On the outside of the circle it was hard to hear the speaker. Occasionally his voice came with full force, and then again died away.
"Such funny people they are. Sometimes a man would come out. The shrapnel is bursting all around him, but he never pays any attention. 'My house is burnt down,' he says, 'everything I had is destroyed. Don't care if I get killed.' They go mad with grief. It's awful to look at them."
At times a hard word, overflowing with wrath, a word full of desperation, would escape from some lips. But there is usually in it more unconscious grief, hopelessness, and despair, than appeal and readiness to protest. The protesting word would soon disappear in the general feeling of grief and dullness. Even the news of general, and not personal, sorrow was received weakly and silently, in that dull half-consciousness which a man no doubt experiences when suddenly struck on the head. In such a state, a man cannot tell whether what he feels is reality, or a nightmare; whether there is merely a ringing sensation in his ears, or actual thunder rumbling at a distance. He cannot distinguish anything,—yet he has no strength to rouse himself.
- From the "Russkiya Zapiski" (Russian Notes) of Petrograd.